Almost the first sight that greets new arrivals in Rojava is endless ranks of oil derricks stretching out into the desert, hauling up tens of thousands of barrels of low-quality crude every day and leaving the surrounding soil polluted and oozing when struck with a spade. For international volunteers drawn to the Kurdish-led autonomous regions by their vision of a feminist, direct-democratic, ecological society, it can be a shocking sight.
“We know that oil is the richness of our land,” Hediya Mihmed, regional Ecology Committee co-chair, tells Novara Media. “But we have to learn how to use it better. The truth is that Rojava’s economy relies on petrol, which has a negative impact on the environment.”
The other two pillars of the ‘Rojava revolution’ are well-established. A robust and increasingly active system of devolved, local democracy is increasing in vitality as the years go by, with 2020 seeing public consultations and widespread reforms across the autonomous regions now known as ‘North and East Syria’ (or NES). Meanwhile, the women’s movement continues to enact dramatic societal change via its network of women’s councils, women’s houses and reconciliation committees, even in the face of violent opposition from elements of the local population.
Despite the gains that have been made, Rojava is lagging behind on ecological measures. While there are many positive ecological projects underway – from tree-planting campaigns through sustainably-built villages to major cooperative projects covering tens of thousands of hectares – on a macro level, the region is scarcely more carbon-neutral than it was under the control of the Assad regime.
To understand why we must acknowledge the delicate balance of geopolitical power in the region. The mains electricity in NES is almost all hydroelectric, just as it was prior to the outbreak of the Syrian war. Since the 1970s the regions which make up modern-day NES have relied on the Tabqa dam, more commonly known as the Euphrates Dam, the largest dam in Syria. The dam was intended to power a hydroelectric power station with eight turbines capable of producing 880MW per hour and irrigating an area of 640,000 hectares on either side of the Euphrates river. The dam never reached its full potential in either of these objectives, and the power it produces is nowhere near enough to meet the needs of the millions of people now living in the autonomous regions of NES. (On a good day, the dam receives about 300M/s of water and can produce 200MW/h of electricity.)
Mains electricity is therefore normally only available for four to 12 hours a day, varying by region across NES. Most communities, therefore, rely on crude diesel generators to make up the gap. This crude diesel, known as ‘mazut’, is also used to power cars and for heating homes. Mazut is the main source of air pollution in NES, while the earth suffers run-off pollution from oil extraction using low-quality, outdated equipment. (Tabqa is also supplemented by one small oil-powered power station and another smaller dam upstream).
To make matters worse, the historically-marginalised Kurdish and tribal Arab regions which make up modern-day NES were never granted the autonomy to refine their own oil by the Assad regime and so AANES is still forced to send oil to Assad-controlled regions for refining, or in some instances to engage in highly toxic and wasteful ad-hoc refining over open fires.
There are several reasons for the shortfall in hydroelectric capacity forcing the region to rely on diesel generators, all of which point to the diverse geopolitical challenges standing between NES and its vision of a more ecological society.
First, the dam was damaged in the course of fighting. In 2013, the area surrounding the dam was seized by Syrian rebels, but Assad regime engineers continued to be granted access to keep the power flowing – a de facto reality repeated elsewhere in Syria, where the regime’s technicians also continued to access oil fields and other infrastructure even as it fell into ISIS’ hands. Nonetheless, the dam suffered damage in the conflict. ISIS seized the dam in 2014.
Welat Derwish, head of the Dams and Energy Committee of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), explains: “ISIS laid mines in all eight turbines and detonated them. They also burned the electrical station.” Four turbines could be restored within a year and a half by the AANES, but the dam is therefore running far below capacity.
Second, and relatedly, AANES is unable to import the parts needed to fix the dam. The heavy industrial parts that are needed are only available for government purchase and not on the open market. Due to its lack of official status or international recognition, the AANES is unable to purchase these parts. Nor is it able to repair its ailing oil-extraction technology, much of which was also damaged during the war.
Third, the situation was worsened by Turkey’s devastating 2019 invasion and occupation of NES. Greenlit by the USA, the assault killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Turkey is now demanding excessive amounts of power be routed into the regions occupied and terrorised by its jihadi militias, many of whom siphon off additional power before it ever reaches the dwindling local population.
In the course of the invasion, Turkey seized control of a key water pumping station. It now regularly severs the flow of water to up to a million civilians elsewhere in NES for weeks or months at a time, demanding the AANES route more and more power into regions under its control – despite the fact that as the occupying power, Turkey is required under international law to meet these needs in regions under its control. It’s the equivalent of Israel demanding that the Palestinian Authority pick up the utilities bill for illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Turkey cut the water flow 15 separate times throughout 2020, and has continued into 2021 – even demanding the AANES fund the repair of power infrastructure destroyed by Turkish shelling.
“Water should not be used as a bargaining chip. This is dirty and unethical. As a matter of humanity we will provide electricity, but Turkey should fix the [power] lines they destroyed themselves,” AANES co-chair for energy Rustem Ziyad tells Novara.
Fourth, the Turkish invasion also forced NES to accept the return of Syrian regime soldiers to garrisons and frontlines across NES, in an agreement intended to hold off Turkey’s devastating assault. Though the AANES retains full political and military autonomy, the regime has been able to lay claim to a share of the power being distributed from Tabqa, resulting in further blackouts across NES.
And fifth, as noted above then Turkey has a long track record of weaponising its control of key water sources like the Euphrates and Tigris, in violation of international law. Erdogan’s government has been systematically siphoning off the Euphrates river, resulting in reduced water flow reaching the Tabqa dam. This results in still less availability of clean energy, as well as hardship for local farmers reliant on the Euphrates to irrigate their fields, driving further reliance on diesel-guzzling generators.
Over and above all of these concerns, the AANES is reliant on the diesel sales which make up the bulk of its meagre annual turnover. On a budget smaller than that of almost any nation-state in the world, AANES must deliver subsidised bread and other essentials to millions of citizens, maintain basic service provision and fund armed forces capable of holding off Turkey on one side and ISIS on the other.
These are the tough realities of attempting to deliver a progressive energy policy to a polity outside of state control. A green revolution in one autonomous region is every bit as hard to achieve as socialism in one country. In a sense, the challenges NES faces are the mirror image of those faced in, say, the UK, where any reduction of energy consumption can only come at the expense of massive CO2 imports from the global south. Like the states at the top of the energy-consumption food chain, NES is bound into a regional petro-economy it cannot simply opt-out of.
“We have created a change in mentality,” says Ms Mihmed, the Ecology Committee co-chair. “The communal system is the basis for a communal mentality, with a focus on a clean environment and tree-planting. But the war has not allowed us to pursue this strategy to its fullest. For example, our sanitation and well-drilling projects were stopped by the war. We launched tree-planting campaigns, but in [Turkish-occupied] Afrin then [the Turkish-backed militias] have been razing trees. We do not even have the tools to measure the extent of pollution, or stop the oil spills.”
The AANES has a track record of rising to meet the immense challenges it faces with bold, open-minded policies. A 2019/2020 financial crash driven by the Lebanese crisis, financial mismanagement by the Assad regime, coronavirus and US sanctions on Syria saw the Syrian Pound (SYP) lose 400% of its value in the space of a year and locals struggling to afford basic essentials as average salaries crashed from $100 a month to just $25. In response, the AANES introduced a wide new range of subsidised goods – oil, sugar, lentils, beans and other local staples. It also announced a new push for food autonomy, aiming to develop autonomous production of vegetables for the first time in coming seasons by funding community and cooperative gardening projects – ‘every yard must become a garden’, ran the slogan shared with locals in commune meetings last summer.
Such efforts are admirable and will have a positive impact on the local environment. But the energy reforms the region needs are macropolitical in nature. Turkey must be forced to allow full water-flow into NES to increase the amount of hydroelectric power that can be distributed. The partial embargo imposed on NES must be lifted in order to allow the AANES to import new parts for the dam, its own refineries to reduce its reliance on the Syrian regime, or even materials like solar panels to reduce its reliance on diesel altogether. The US could open such a border crossing into NES tomorrow if it wanted: it chooses not to, preferring to keep the region marginalised, isolated and diplomatically vulnerable.
The international community must intervene to force Turkey and other hostile state actors to stand down, and grant the ecological revolution in NES space to bloom. Until this happens, AANES’ vision of a green Rojava will remain obscured behind clouds of mazut smoke.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist who has covered the situation in Syria and the wider Middle East for VICE, the New Statesman and the Independent, among others. He is also a co-founder of the Rojava Information Center.